Labor-HHS May Spark GOP Rebellion
With President Bush itching to veto Democratic-sponsored spending bills and the new majority eager to reinvigorate social welfare programs that were curbed under 12 years of Republican rule, no bill is more primed to spark a clash than the one funding the Departments of Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services.
But sustaining a veto on the bill — which was a political football even when the GOP ran both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue — will be no easy task given that it includes numerous popular programs, ranging from cancer research to college grants, and is typically larded up with $1 billion or more in “pork barrel” projects for Members of both parties.
“It’s always going to be one of the toughest bills to handle, if not the toughest, because it is large,” said Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.). “It has a lot of issues that Republicans don’t particularly care for, but it has some, obviously, that we do.”
In fact, dozens of House GOP moderates refused to vote for last year’s Republican budget blueprint until they received a commitment from the leadership that the Labor-HHS bill would receive an increase, and 28 Senate Republicans, including Lott, voted to increase spending on programs in the bill by $7 billion. An inability to find more money for Labor-HHS helped fuel the breakdown in the appropriations process last year, when Republicans failed to pass 10 of 12 spending bills.
So while conservative Republicans have cheered the president’s recent veto threat on appropriations bills, many moderate Republicans and appropriators support increased funding, particularly for items such as research at the National Institutes of Health, which have been squeezed in the past few years.
Rep. Jim Walsh (R-N.Y.), the ranking member on the Appropriations subcommittee on Labor-HHS who barely survived a tough re-election fight in 2006, said there is pent-up demand for spending on the NIH, Pell Grants, low-income energy subsidies, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other programs. “I think some of the cuts [Bush] proposed in Labor-H are overly optimistic,” Walsh said, adding that he may have to vote to override the president’s veto, depending on the specifics of the bill.
Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), another appropriator, said Republicans should not have kept to the president’s request in previous years and said many would vote for an override, particularly when it comes to education and health care.
“If the president vetoes those things, then he vetoes them. We need to do what we think is right,” he said.
Simpson said that veto override votes tend to become more of a partisan referendum on supporting the president rather than the underlying bill but said he was prepared to vote to override if he supported the bill. “It won’t bother me,” he said.
Moderate Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) said Republicans don’t yet know how they will react if Bush follows through on the threat with vetoes. “Everyone’s trying to be fiscally responsible, but in the end we have to do what we have to do to make sure these programs have the funding they need,” LaHood said.
He added that Democratic appropriators, including House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (Wis.), so far have been reaching out to Republicans and said that could bode well for getting bipartisan bills with veto-proof majorities.
“I think he’ll find a receptive ear among Republicans on many of these issues,” LaHood said.
Plus, the increases Republicans say they would support are in the precise areas that Democrats say they are targeting.
“Pell Grants, Head Start, day care, we’re going to boost up,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Labor-HHS. “We’re going over the president’s budget on NIH. I know that.”
Harkin also noted that he would seek extra funding for the CDC.
Because of the historic difficulty Congress has had in passing the bill, Harkin said he has already talked to Senate Democratic and Republican leaders about having the Labor-HHS bill be the first spending measure on the Senate floor next month.
He has not gotten any commitments yet, but he said he is hopeful.
“For one reason or another, it’s always been put off until the end,” Harkin said. “I think all the stars are lined up maybe now to get it done earlier than that.”
For his part, Obey has held out hope that Republicans will join Democrats in support of the Labor-HHS bill and other spending measures and resist the president’s call for cuts.
“I think both parties want to fund education adequately. I think both parties want to fund NIH adequately,” he said. “I don’t think many people are saying to Republican Members of Congress ‘cut back on Pell Grants and eliminate every other student aid program in the government to pay for Pell Grants.’”
Obey has argued that the additional spending is modest relative to the $3 trillion in debt racked up since Bush took office or the hundreds of billions spent on what Obey described as “that misbegotten war in Iraq.”
Still, Republicans said Democrats run the risk of overestimating how far over the president’s budget request even centrist GOP Members might be willing to go.
Lott predicted that if Democrats overreach on the bill, “Then the president will have to veto it, and we will sustain it.”
Rep. Ralph Regula (R-Ohio), who chaired the Labor-HHS subcommittee for six years, said he’s not sure he would be willing to support an override if the Democrats load up the bill with an extra $10 billion or more in spending.
“It’s a very important bill, but $10 billion is a lot of money,” he said. However, Regula did note that he feels the bill has been shortchanged in recent years and needs more money.
Bush’s overall goal of keeping non-security spending to no more than a 1 percent increase has hit the Labor-HHS bill hard. In the past few years, funding increases have fallen far short of inflation, and Bush consistently has sought even deeper cuts than the Republican Congress was willing to approve.
For the past few years, the bill’s cost has hovered between $140 billion and $150 billion.
In their fiscal 2008 budget plan, Congressional Democrats already made room for appropriators to add as much as $9.5 billion for education and training beyond the president’s request, and they have assumed a $2.9 billion increase in discretionary health care programs over fiscal 2007.
Office of Management and Budget Director Rob Portman recently issued veto threats against any bills that exceed his discretionary request. And an OMB spokeswoman noted that the president this year has requested more than $1 billion for grants to local education agencies, has asked for $5 billion more for children’s health insurance and has increased funding for NIH by 40 percent since 2001.
Democrats said the bill is filled with political dynamite that likely will force many Republicans to vote for it, especially as Democrats draw attention to the bill to highlight their traditional focus on health care and education.
“There’s no doubt there’s troubled waters ahead, but the fact of the matter is we have to assert ourselves and let the public know what the issues are that we care about,” said Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who serves on the Labor-HHS subcommittee.
He added that Republicans “can rant, and they can rave, but the question is, as the hot breath of the  election gets closer, will you see a change in attitude? The question is, do they want to prevent money from going to education, health care?”
Senate Appropriations ranking member Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) said he fully expects Democrats to try to use the bill to shore up their liberal bona fides. “They’ll try to curry favor with the interest groups and the beneficiaries of those programs for political gain in the next election,” he said, adding that Republicans likely would counter by accusing Democrats of returning to their “tax and spend” roots.